Let's celebrate the glory of grammar

15th April 2005 at 01:00
No teacher I know has ever taught children to write by first explaining the properties of a sentence or a subordinate clause. Nor do most teachers believe that formal grammar exercises will produce well-written stories, newspaper reports, letters, diaries or any other form of writing.

Teachers know what brings out the best in their pupils' writing. They know about inspiring young writers, capturing their imagination, reading them good examples and giving them a feel for language. They know that teaching children to write is not about textual analysis and never has been.

So the recent review of research by Richard Andrews of York University into the association between the formal teaching of grammar and pupils' ability to write confirms our own experience from the classroom: knowledge of grammatical structures is of little help to children who are learning to write. A few alarmist headlines and soundbites have so far failed to induce panic among parents, employers or politicians; nor should they have done.

If people can learn to write without being able to parse a sentence, that is a cause for celebration not criticism.

But the absence of any obvious correlation between formal grammar teaching and the ability to write well should not be allowed to resurrect the ideological hostility to English language teaching that blighted the curriculum for so long. Basic rules of grammar need to be taught from the earliest age so that children can apply them in their writing. From Year 1 to Year 6, teachers do this. They remind their pupils about capital letters and full stops and encourage them to get a feel for what makes a sentence.

They teach them to check through their writing and insert any missing punctuation.

Older pupils are taught more conventions. They are introduced to paragraphs and tenses so that they understand the meaning of these terms. However imaginative or lively their writing may be, it still requires a basic structure in order to be readable.

There are good reasons, too, for teaching children about nouns, adjectives and other parts of speech; they are useful terms to know when a piece of writing is discussed. A stronger verb here, a more adventurous adjective there: these are points that can be made more readily if the terms are understood.

But there are two further compelling reasons for teaching children about the structure of language and to do so as a separate component in their literacy development. The old argument that teaching language usage separately from reading and writing removed it from any meaningful context was never convincing. Children, and adults, are fascinated by words. This is hardly surprising given that language is so central to human existence.

The enduring popularity of word searches, crosswords and puzzles is testament to our interest in words and language. Add to this the pleasure we derive from jokes, puns, aphorisms and rhymes, and it is obvious that learning about language is a valid and enriching pursuit in its own right.

The intrinsic interest of language is reason enough to teach it. So, also, is the accumulative effect that learning about language has on our ability to use it precisely and effectively. No amount of research will ever measure this effect, but the more we understand language the greater will be our capacity to harness its power. Using the best words and the best structures helps us to convey the thoughts and feelings we wish to convey.

That is the prize we offer our pupils and it is why we must continue to teach the essentials of grammar and language use.

Alan Kerr is a teacher and writer

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